The Power of Questions

This week’s blog is devoted to a different kind of classroom—the weekly Wildwood middle and upper school faculty development meeting—in which Wildwood teachers share ideas and expand their practice. Our teachers are proud to be learners, and meetings like this give everyone an opportunity to turn the tables and become students for the afternoon. Today Wildwood faculty were learning how to teach students to ask their own questions.

Based on the book, Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, the idea seemed simple: Instead of teachers coming up with questions to ask students, Wildwood faculty would learn to facilitate a structured protocol in which students respond to a teacher-generated prompt by coming up with their own questions. Rothstein and Santana call the process the Question Formulation Technique (QFT). In keeping with Wildwood’s progressive philosophy, the QFT is constructivist, which means the learners involved are allowed to construct meaning together that they use for a specific purpose.

In the classroom, students can use the questions they generate for any number of purposes that the teacher decides upon beforehand: as a way to craft topics for research projects and experiments, to construct questions for a Socratic seminar, or even to help their teachers assess what they know and what they don’t.

Middle and Upper School Director of Curriculum, Deb Christenson, and I facilitated the faculty’s practice with the Question Formulation Technique. The QFT typically begins with teachers presenting students with a statement, called a Question Focus, such as “Pollution affects Los Angeles residents” rather than a question, like “How does pollution affect the population of Los Angeles?”  By forming questions in response to the Question Focus, students are able to delve deeper into a subject and come out with a greater ownership of their own learning.

Some Wildwood teachers previously attended a workshop on the QFT and were eager to share their experiences in using the technique with the students. For example, 9th and 10th grade humanities teachers Annie Barnes and Ariane White told their colleagues how the QFT helped students frame their entire unit and project on the late 19th Century industrial period in the U.S.

At the end of the faculty development session, teachers were asked to fill out anonymous exit slips describing what they would take away from the QFT lesson. One teacher noted: “Encouraging students to ask questions generates genuine enthusiasm for a topic and the curiosity needed for further personal exploration.”  Said another, “While I try to get kids to think about how they think, [the QFT] is a handy format to do this in a structured and safe way.”

No doubt more Wildwood middle and upper school students will soon be using the QFT in their classes as one more way to deepen their learning. For in the words of one teacher, “Questions are the source of knowledge.”

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